From wrestling to boxing and badminton, while India gains mileage in several new sporting frontiers, one cannot overlook its forever-old love-affair with chess. Those who play it religiously are a dedicated bunch who exude their undivided concentration on the stationary pieces over the black-and-white chequered board. Although chess doesn’t hold its ground in India as a celebrated spectator sport but it has been passed on through generations with a deep emotional connect.
Today, India can boast of producing 64 Grandmasters, the number, which is symbolic to the 64 square boxes on the chessboard. It was Delhi lad Prithu Gupta who added this feather to our caps in July 2019 after beating IM Lev Yankelevich of Germany in the fifth round of the Portuguese League. His achievement came 31 years after the blue-eyed boy from Chennai, now a legend, Viswanathan Anand became India’s first Grandmaster in 1988. Anand, who led the way like a bellwether brought about a chess revolution in the state. Today, a sight of the chessboard is common in Chennai households, a game that has gained its popularity like the city’s profound love for Carnatic Music, and action-packed Kollywood flicks.
Chess is now ingrained in the vibrant culture of the city. As the number aptly suggest, Chennai’s tryst with chess makes it the Grandmaster factory of India. Out of the 64 Grandmasters India have, Tamil Nadu has led the battalion as the clear first with 23 GMs, which makes roughly 36% of the share. West Bengal holds a distant second position with eight, followed by Maharashtra with seven and New Delhi with 6 GMs. Andhra Pradesh has produced 4 GMs, while each of Kerala, Telangana and Karnataka have produced three. Each of Gujarat and Odisha have given India two GMs. While, the list ends with Rajasthan, Haryana and Goa featuring one GM each.
Ever since 1961, when Manuel Aaron returned to the then Madras, winning the country’s first IM title, and Vishwanathan Anand took it a level higher after being crowned the first Grandmaster from India, Chennai has been regularly churning out chess champs. The city has recorded to its name, the country’s first International Master, the first Grandmaster, the first female Grandmaster, and the first International Arbiter. The city even has its own magazine devoted to chess, Chess Mate, run by Arvind Aaron, a chess journalist, and son of Manuel Aaron.
A major portion of the credit goes to Anand, who as a boy took his first steps in the world of chess at the Tal Chess Club, which was established in Chennai by the Russian Cultural Centre in 1972. Although chess was not a well-known sport anywhere else in India, the Chennai chess scene during those days was bustling with activity. Growing up in a competitive environment, Anand developed lightning speed and a quick eye for tactics, which sharpened his claws and teeth. He went on beating his rivals one after another like a tiger on his prowl.
Though India has produced a number of chess masters before Anand, it was he who contributed immensely for the development of the game in the country, not just because of his fame, but also because his myriad enterprises that actually spurred the sport’s popularity and improved the quality of coaching camps. Anand was the first one from India to challenge Russian chess hegemony since the American genius Bobby Fischer. In 2007-08 the upheaval was completed with the defeat of Vladimir Kramnik.
Things changed over the years after Vishy’s success. Since 1990, the young players of chess in the city were taking the guidance available from the chess software with the boom of computers. Parents living in Chennai often find chess to be an extracurricular activity that can add to academics, without bearing much expense. Chess is also being actively supported by the state government at the school level. The state of Tamil Nadu has made chess mandatory in public schools. The Velammal school, with its branches in Chennai and Madurai, has been a powerhouse of the sport leaving a mark in the country’s chess map, producing 10 out of the 64 Grandmasters India has today. D Gukesh, who pocketed the honour in January this year, is India’s youngest GM at 12 years, 7 months and 17 days and a student of the school. R Praggnanandhaa, who became India’s then youngest GM in June last year, is also an outcome of the same school.
The country’s talent in the sport got its due validation from none other than former world champion Vladimir Kramnik from Russia, who in a move to further give an impetus to India’s chess culture, started to train six talented Indian youngsters in a camp at Chens-Sur-Leman, France. After Anand, Bengal’s Dibyendu Barua in 1991 became country’s second GM. However, the wait for the next GM took six long years before Pravin Thipsay joined the club in 1997. Since 2000, 61 have gone on to join the list. India is one of the world’s top contenders in chess. However, it was the visionary Vishy, who stoked the glory days for Indian chess.